EVERY YEAR PEOPLE ask me the same question. Mrs. Claus, they say, what's it like living with Mr. Claus on the luxurious North Pole Estate in this special season? And for once I'd like to, pardon the expression, shit in the figgy pudding and tell all. For instance, since Thanksgiving, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Vixen have had a nasty case of hoof-and-mouth disease. Let me tell you what Father Christmas does. He stalks outside the pen, while repeating a single word in a flat, menacing tone: venison, venison, venison.
So when I'm seeking a refresher course on the meaning of Christmas, and Santa is busy pumicing his carbuncles while Microsoft customer service debugs the Naughty/Nice data-base, I take the Land Rover down to the Twin Cities to see a Christmas show. That's right, Minneapolis and St. Paul. For one thing, the weather feels just like home. For another, I like to watch the fickle theatergoers crawl out of the woodwork for some cheap merriment. I've been around those stages in lonely July, when it's just me and the actors' droopy parents in the house.
The Guthrie's annual production of A Christmas Carol certainly packs them in. Although every year I find my sympathies lying more and more with the unrepentant Scrooge. "Solitude brings out the best in me," he says, and I believe he makes a convincing case for it. Scrooge is an empiricist, an agnostic even, but he's no fool. He listens to the facts: "Darkness is cheap"; greed pays. But a few howling wraiths and apocalyptic premonitions later, he cleans up his act but fast. One of these years Scrooge is going to stick to his guns: Goddamn them every one, he'll say, and I'll be in the audience, silently cheering.
Look, I've worked myself into a cynical little tizzy, and that's not what Mrs. Claus is about. But the house is in chaos. Just last week the old man broke out the tape measure for the annual gutcheck and realized he's going to have serious chimney issues again this year. So he crash diets. One year it's all nuts and berries. Another, high protein shakes. Of late, he's turned on to laxatives, and diet pills of dubious legality. He dry-swallows them by the handful; they keep him "at tippity toppety Santa Shape," he says. Until on the big night, he's blitzed out of his gourd, trying to wax the sleigh runners with the elves' (prodigious) ear wax, hallucinating sugar plum fairies while executing some hairy rooftop descents.
I may never have indulged in such base recklessness, but I felt plenty debauched after sitting through the Ballet of the Dolls' perverse parody, The Nutcracker? Flagrant crossdressing! Artistic degradation! Everything terribly clever and stylish and sordid! I almost walked out, but decided to stay and see how much worse it could get. Much, much worse, it turns out. Transposing the tale onto a modern New York apartment, choreographer Myron Johnson and his Dolls make the most of young Marie's sexual awakening with a Ken doll, among marauding mice. Until a life-size Barbie (resembling Charo) rescues Ken and Marie with a whip--perhaps under the influence of her late father Klaus. Let me assure you deviant ballerinas that no one here takes kindly to public mockery of The Nutcracker. (Confidential to Mr. Claus: Put Myron Johnson down on the coal list.)
How to recover from such tawdry fare? How to restore the secular sanctity of the holiday? A simple, tasteful approach, you say, an ecologically sound holiday free of capitalist excess. Let me tell you, I've gone that route.
I milked the reindeer and churned the milk with fresh snow and then called it eggnog. I bought recycled toilet paper Christmas cards designed by Zapatista school children. I stuffed, garnished and roasted a tofu turkey. And then Santa spent Christmas day polishing off a case of Pig's Eye Lite, while dozing in front of a Davy and Goliath marathon on The 700 Club... well, I never gave myself a hernia like that again.
And yet I quite enjoyed In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre's revival of La Befana, a production as well-intentioned as my revisionist holiday, but a jolly bit more successful. After a visit from three very large kings with giant Easter Island heads, a childless Italian woman sets off on her own quest to find the holy baby. On her travels, La Befana bicycles through the 'hood, distributing gifts to all the children (she'll be hearing from Santa's attorneys). While there aren't any bad guys to speak of, a walking briefcase and a 10-foot tie do a comic stand-in for all the folly of commerce and marketing. Mrs. Claus appreciates a good lumpen Christmas tale as much as the next person--think of me as a moderate Barbara Bush in a despotic Toyland. La Befana's generous and humane approach is so winning that next year I plan to spend Christmas on a commune with these delightful (and talented) puppet people.
Now, when I married Santa he was gifted with a crèche. That man could design a manger out of fruitcake and donkey dung and make it look glorious. Not any more. Santa stumbles out to the garage, slaps a leftover Cabbage Patch Kid (certified name: Ashley Mae Crunt) into an upright tub, and announces: Well, it looks like we've got ourselves another Jesus-on-the-Halfshell this year. That's when I take an extra nip of the vanilla extract and head out to see a quality Nativity play. Both Theatre in the Round's Amahl and the Night Visitor and Penumbra Theatre's Black Nativity satisfy the same basic urge for modest, musical accounts of the Holy Night. Amahl, Carlo Menotti's operetta about a lame boy, his abandoned mother, and their chance meeting with the three roaming kings, has an appealing universality to it. Sure, the cast is unspectacular, the piano is out of tune, and one of the violins is doing its own thing. But this is community theater, and I like it like that.
Penumbra's production of Langston Hughes's Black Nativity is considerably more proficient. Set in a barn in turn-of-the-century Missouri, it's mostly an excuse for T. Mychael Rambo, Joe Carter, and their talented cohorts to sing some gorgeous gospel carols while parading around in colorful costumes. That's excepting a brief spell in the middle of the pageant when Joseph takes center stage with an ostrich feather headdress and performs athletic jumping jacks while 6-foot-tall African masks fly down like Spinal Tap's Stonehenge. Penumbra makes its play for the lucrative Kwaanza market?
Well, let me tell you that by the time Kwaanza rolls around each year, Santa Dearest is getting bedsores from hibernating on the couch, four days into a NyQuil bender. He has a dislocated right patella that's going to need some orthoscopic attention; he walks with a fortified candy cane.
Still, when he makes the odd department store appearance Santa insists that the kids sit on the right leg, never on the left. It's an "authority issue," the way he tells it. Carson kept the guests on his right, Leno does it, Letterman too. So Santa does it. Never mind the risks to a man in his condition. There is no arguing.
Just as obstinate and status-conscious is Mr. Warner, the autocratic widower and 1880s millionaire who drains the joy from his Summit Avenue mansion in The Great American History Theatre's 10th anniversary production of A Servant's Christmas. Monica, a Chicago girl working to attend Macalester College, shows up to rescue Warner's children and her fellow domestics from emotional frigidity. Oh, and she's secretly packing...
a menorah. It's sort of like The Sound of Music without the music.
I haven't told anyone yet, but on December 26, I'm thinking of telling Santa where he can put that yule log for good. I'm leaving him for another man--treasured local actor and playwright Kevin Kling. The divorce settlement will be messy--what I'll do with half the world's toys I cannot fathom now. But after seeing Kling's one-man Jungle Theater show, Fear and Loving in Minneapolis, I know I must make a clean break. Kling's stories--mostly unrelated to Christmas--are funny, eloquent, and positively riveting. Listening to his account of prematurely broken gifts and mythically long car hauls, I felt that seasonal je ne sais quoi, a certain tingling warmth across my ample Claus bosom. Although it may have been the mulled wine and hot flashes talking. I'll tell you one thing: that Kling man spins so much yarn I could knit him a dozen pairs of booties and still have enough left over for mittens. CP
See Bright Lights for further information on the productions mentioned above.